Saturday, August 11, 2007

Tucks and the Frog, Part II: The Longest Day

Tucks (better known as Valliant) on his way up the Dry River Trail, during the zombie day--a 13.7 mile day, which included waterfall swimming, orienteering, climbing above treeline, and brutal ridge-walking for speed against the dinner bell. Photo by Wood Frog.

On a day in the mountains, if you find yourself descending a good bit, chances are it means there is a bigger climb waiting for you. Wood Frog and I left Mizpah Hut at 9:00 a.m.--much later than advised for the day we had planned--and started our descent into the green goodness of the Dry River Wilderness Area. From the DR Cutoff, the trail is fast, and fun to run, even carrying a pack. I learned during White Week that I am not the fastest cat on the trail when "trail" means traversing rocks and steep climbs, but turn me loose on wooded single-track and it's game-on.

We flew through the woods, mindful of moose, crossed a few streams and rivers, until we could hear the Dry River Falls just off the trail. We followed a lightly blazed trail to the falls and a crystal clear (and c-c-cold!) pool at the base of the show. Swimming holes are not made any nicer, nor much colder to a couple tidal boneheads from the Bay.

A swimming hole with a view. Dry River Falls. Photo by Wood Frog.

One thing we learned about wilderness areas: wilderness declarations trump trail maintenance. Coming across a girl and her husky on my way back to the trail from the falls, she gave fair warning that the DR Trail became tough to find and follow after a major river crossing. She, dog, and boyfriend had camped nearby (no dogs allowed in huts), and had done their share of stumbling.

Even forewarned, we managed to lose the trail. A few false starts, adept map reading (NEVER hike the Whites without the White Mountain Guide book), and some sleuth work, landed us back on the trail and beginning our ascent back toward Lakes of the Clouds Hut. One more detour from forward progress came when Wood Frog lost a head-butting match, and consequently his glasses, with a head-level branch from a fallen tree. Glasses were recovered intact, and the Frog picked up the trip-winning "tough guy" mountain scar down his forehead.

It's one thing not to do much in the way of trail clearing. It is quite another for nocturnal trail elves to fell trees at exactly waist height--where you can neither go easily under or over them--across the trail every hundred yards. Despite, or because of, its untamed difficulty, the Dry River Trail is among the most rewarding to hike. Other than the dog couple, we passed no one as we pushed above tree line. The ascent was like a shedding of earthy trappings headed up into rock-ville. We arrived at Lakes 4 hours and 52 minutes after departing Mizpah, covering 6.9 miles, and spending easily more than an hour between swimming, looking for glasses, and looking for the trail. We sat down to soup and brownies at a little after 2:00 p.m, and were out the door and headed up Crawford Path toward Madison Springs Hut towards 3:00 p.m.

Wood Frog explains to White Mountain hikers how Baltimore Orioles fans like to embellish a certain line of the Star Spangled Banner. Towards the top of Dry River Trail.

One thing to note about the huts: they serve dinner at 6:00 p.m. That time is not arbitrary or negotiable. It is 6.8 miles from the Lakes hut to Madison. Damnit, man, we're going to miss dinner!

On our way up Crawford, we pass a speed-hiking mother and daughter, with whom we'd had dinner and breakfast at Pinkham Notch. We re-greeted each other and told them what we'd been doing, where we were headed, and noted that we were concerned about making it to dinner on time. Speed mom (who had come from Madison to Lakes) thought it over and decided, "No, you guys should be able to make it, no problem."

We hooked into the Westside Trail from Crawford, and the long and ROCKY Gulfside Trail from there. Despite the urgency for our dinner date, my legs are slowing down. At the same time, the Wood Frog is hopping. We are encountering any number of hikers, as Gulfside is again part of the Appalachian Trail, with many summits and springs, as well as the Mt. Washington Cog Railroad dissecting the trail. We both come to the same unspoken realization, that the Frog's legs are our dinner reservation. He hops down the trail ahead of me, stopping at the top of a ridge to check-in with a thumbs-up. I am grateful that he is in high-gear.

Wandering into the desert or the mountains, figuratively and/or literally can expand the soul. I have had these desert experiences (also known to some as "Come to Jesus" moments) in long races, where suffering and perseverance do this self-defining jitterbug of a dance. The outcomes of those dances are inked directly into the story of your being. The Gulfside Trail to Madison has its place in my story. I had tired legs; I had wet socks; I am marginally afraid of heights; and mountain miles seem to measure on a scale which renders road running times completely meaningless.

"Cairns" are piles of rocks stacked along trails in the Whites to tell you where the hell you are supposed to be going. There is something primitive and spiritual about wandering after rockpiles through the mountains, particularly when you are stumble-drunk trying to aim yourself from one to the next. The cairn builders are not nice people. Probably they were beaten up by hikers on their grade school playgrounds, and cruelly strewing cairns over mountains is their chance at revenge. If I find one of them, I'm leaving with lunch money.

Just because you stack piles of rocks in a line, doesn't make it an actual trail. If you get lost in the White Mountains, you don't have a cairn in the world. Sorry, had to say it.

As a follower of cairns, you come to realize that when you look up at the next mountain, you can always find a cairn up near the top, then trace them right back down to you. This went on for many mountains, until I looked at my watch and realized that I hadn't eaten anything since the Lakes hut, 2 hours and 45 minutes ago. I found a rock (tough to do), sat down, housed down some gorp, then got cranking again. Gorp is good.

I finally spotted Madison Hut, tucked behind a mountain, and made my way down a winding section of trail to arrive, having covered the 6.8 miles in 3 hours and 42 minutes (still well short of the recommended hiking time). As I arrived, Wood Frog hopped out to greet me and direct me to our table. He had made it in just over 3 hours, checked in, and put my name in the pot for dinner. God Bless Wood Frog and the croo at Madison. I sat down to soup, salad, chicken casserole, peas, and a kick-arse dessert of some sort. Total mileage for the day was 13.7 miles. Mountain miles, that is!

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